Bettman's no-win situation

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

No matter what determination is made today in an Arizona bankruptcy court, you certainly can paint National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman as the loser of this ugly and very public fight.

Should Jim Balsillie and his overpriced bid to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton be approved by insolvency Judge Redfield Baum, Bettman will have a nasty legal, if not logistical and internal, mess on his hands.

And should the opposite occur -- and Balsillie be defeated once again by the NHL, possibly in favour of Jerry Reinsdorf's mystery bid -- then keeping the Coyotes in Phoenix, where there remains no likelihood of future success, doesn't solve the bigger-picture problem for the NHL or its largest money-losing franchise.

Make no mistake, this has never been only about hockey business and what's best for the NHL. This is about Bettman's business. This is highly personal. This is about proving to Balsillie he can't push the commissioner or the league around, so much so that the NHL seems willing to embarrass itself and flaunt the truth in legal documents in order to end up the victor in court.

Those who know Bettman best say they never have seen him so angry, so full of fight, so driven to win, no matter what the price to his own reputation or that of the league.

But the questions going in are not in any way personal: What, if anything, does this judge know or care about the NHL? How can he be most responsible to the secured and unsecured creditors -- who are well taken care of in Balsillie's bid -- without mandating a franchise move in the NHL? Does he have that legal right? Or, is he willing to establish precedent here?

And as one insolvency lawyer previously involved in NHL bankruptcies pointed out the other day, the judge's only real responsibility is to protect the secured creditors first, and the unsecured creditors second, with a strange fact being that the NHL is the second-largest secured creditor in the case and is fighting against the higher bid.

That stated, the process remains overly complicated by side issues, contradictory motions and accounts filed, finger pointing, agendas, a signed lease in Glendale, and a previous owner, Jerry Moyes -- abandoned by the very league he sunk so much money into -- trying to recoup some of his lost investment.

Everyone in this fight seems to be half right and obstinate.

Balsillie, who has bid $212.5 million US for the Coyotes, made his offer contingent upon moving the team to Hamilton or Southern Ontario.

The manner in which the creditors would be compensated normally would make it highly attractive for the judge, if there wasn't a condition of movement attached.

League sources have indicated that Balsillie has every right to bid on the Phoenix franchise, but no right to claim a territory as valuable as Southern Ontario as his own.

STUBBORN

And Bettman is stubborn enough and spiteful enough to favour Winnipeg, without ownership or an adequate arena, as a possible future site for the Coyotes.

Balsillie, continually poking and angering the NHL, indicated he would be willing to operate the Coyotes in Phoenix, but only if the NHL guarantees his future losses.

That isn't about to happen.

The NHL has tripped over itself in some of its court filings. While insisting that Moyes had relinquished control of the franchise and didn't have the legal right to take the team into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, some of its own actions indicate otherwise.

If Moyes wasn't the owner, why did Bettman fly to Phoenix to present him with Reinsdorf's low-ball offer? If the NHL had taken over the franchise, why is there a trail of e-mails indicating otherwise?

The only leg the NHL can stand on is that Balsillie may not have the right to move the franchise, and still requires board of governors' approval to become an owner.

But if the court rules in his favour, and then the league won't approve him as owner and won't approve his move to Hamilton, what then?

A mess for Bettman, no matter what, if anything, is decided today.


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